Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 2: Rethinking Nag Hammadi

As mentioned on my blog entry from last week, the textbook we are using for the course focuses almost entirely on the Nag Hammadi Library, leaving other sources for Gnosticism relatively unexamined. So we began class this week by redressing this deficiency with an examination of the discoveries made before Nag Hammadi, namely the codices Askew (British Museum, Add. 511; 4th cent.; published in 1851), Bruce (Bodleian Library, Bruce MS 96; 5th cent.; published in 1891), and Berlin (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502; 5th cent.; published in 1955). To these discoveries we owe the existence of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, several untitled texts, and copies of the Gospel of Mary, the Sophia Jesus Christ, the Apocryphon of John, and the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles. Though much study has been made of the Berlin Codex (due to its important contents), the Askew and Bruce codices tend to be neglected in the field (note that the Bruce texts are included in the Meyer and Robinson collections but not Askew and Bruce; and none of them appear in Layton’s collection). We discussed also the discovery of the Greek Gospel of Thomas fragments in the excavations at Oxyrhynchus and, only generally, the Manichean and Mandaean texts published in the early twentieth century.

These early discoveries were significant because they provided scholars with the first real firsthand literary productions by, apparently, “Gnostic” Christians. Prior to the publication of these texts, all that was available were the texts excerpted in the works of the heresiologists, and these may not have been transmitted with fidelity. Yet, the texts published prior to the Nag Hammadi find (in Berlin and Askew) only made Gnosticism seem as weird and incomprehensible as the heresiologists claimed.

Fortunately, the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 provided additional texts to be studied. Denzey Lewis’s textbook offers the basic facts of the discovery—the canonical account, as Mark Goodacre would say—and I went over this with the class, as well as a general description of the codices (13 books, 52 texts, a mix of Christian and “pagan” and perhaps some Jewish material, the contents of the cartonnage in the covers, etc.). Then we viewed a portion of the 1987 BBC documentary The Gnostics, which features an interview with Muhammad Ali al-Samman, the man who claimed to have found the codices. The documentary led into a discussion of Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount’s article, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices” (JBL 133.2 [2014]: 399-419) from this week’s assigned readings, with added comments from Mark Goodacre’s “How Reliable is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?” (JSNT 35.4 [2013]: 303-22). Both articles challenge the story as told (and re-told, with many variations) by Ali. Denzey Lewis and Blount argue that the codices may “just as plausibly be private productions commissioned by late ancient Egyptian Christians with antiquarian interests” and later deposited in graves (p. 400), perhaps even intentionally as funerary deposits, given their contents (p. 401). The same could be said of the early discoveries and certainly seems to be the case for the recently-published Codex Tchacos (which contains the Gospel of Judas and other texts), found in a family tomb in El-Minya, Egypt.

The students engaged well Denzey Lewis and Blount’s article, but felt that Jean Doresse’s original account of the find (villagers took him to a cemetery and they said some had found the texts there in a jar) could just as likely be incorrect, since these villagers may not have known the full story of the jar’s discovery. They reacted favorably to both articles’ call for critical re-evaluation of the “colonial meme” of the need to rescue texts from unenlightened peasants; as Goodacre states, “The narrative scarcely hides its moral, that important artifacts like this need to be wrested from the hands of those who cannot hope to understand them, and placed in the hands of the responsible, Western academics” (p. 305).

One student asked how these re-evaluations of the story of the discovery change our understanding of the material. I emphasized that the corpus previously was considered a collection made from several different libraries but the reasons for this compilation were mysterious (the dominant theory was that they were hidden away by Pachomian monks after Athanasius declared them heretical), as was why the texts were assembled in each individual codex; now it seems that they likely were found in a number of different tombs, and thus share affinities with the early discoveries and with Codex Panopolitanus (found in a monk’s grave in 1886/87 and containing portions of the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Enoch, and some psalms), and, most importantly, need to be separated from each other and evaluated as separate, smaller collections. At this statement, one student asked why Denzey Lewis, in her textbook, states that NHL Codex I is “un-Gnostic” (“there is nothing really heretical in this codex,” p. 6). It is an odd statement; the codex contains the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, the Apocryphon of James, the Gospel of Truth, the Treatise on the Resurrection, and the Tripartite Tractate—each of which certainly contain some unorthodox ideas, though perhaps not clearly Gnostic.

Denzey Lewis’s textbook was written before her article on rethinking the Nag Hammadi discovery. I wonder how she would change the contents of her chapter if given the chance to revise the book. It might even affect her decision to focus on the Nag Hammadi Library as a unified corpus. As she writes in chapter three: “What makes this textbook different from other books on NH is that it does not presume that the entire NHL is Gnostic. Many writings in it have nothing to do with the pursuit of gnosis; not all the ideas we find in it are Gnostic, either. So rather than imposing an inaccurate term on the various writings contained in the NHL, this book approaches the entire collection as a miscellany—a variety of Christina and non-Christian texts—some Gnostic and others not, which came together to represent a range of ancient voices” (p. 14). There are now additional reasons to pull away from reading these texts together, and if Denzey Lewis does not see much of the NHL as Gnostic, then why call the textbook Introduction to “Gnosticism” at all?

One student asked if our course was only going to discuss discoveries and wanted to know when we were going to read some texts. After our break, his desire for texts was met with a reading of the Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas. The hymn serves as a gentle entry point into Gnostic ideas, which seem to be reflected in the text, though the orthodox Christians who transmitted the Acts of Thomas manuscripts also valued the hymn. We read through the text as a group and looked for aspects of Gnostic salvation in its tale of a young prince who leaves his kingdom in the East to find a treasure and return with it to his parents’ palace. Next week we will read another “gentle entry point”—Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora—before wading deep into the Nag Hammadi texts.

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16 Responses to Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 2: Rethinking Nag Hammadi

  1. Mike Grondin says:

    1. The so-called Codex XIII isn’t a codex, so there were 12.
    2. “now it seems that they likely were found in a number of different tombs”? Where and how was that made likely? I don’t recall that from the Denzy Lewis or Goodacre articles.

  2. Tony says:

    1. Fair enough, but it remains standard to list the materials that way (i.e., two texts from a thirteenth codex are extant).
    2. See Denzey Lewis p. 400 and note her use of the plural: “The books were later deposited in graves…”‘; “…their eventual placement in graves…” (p. 401). And I, for one, think it likely multiple tombs because of the number of codices (a fairly large find) and the duplication among them.

  3. Mike Grondin says:

    1. The text of Trimorphic Protennoia was found tucked inside Codex VI. There were a few lines on one page of TP to identify a second tractate, hence some lists indicate a second tractate, but it wasn’t there in anywhere near its entirety, so clearly there was no intent to include it.

    2. So you reject the story of the jar entirely? The peasants found the books separately and then made up the story of the jar? Why would they do that? (I’ll have to reread Lewis, which I recall as being highly speculative, to see exactly what she wrote on that issue.)

  4. Mike Grondin says:

    OK, I’ve found the quotations you cite. I’m not sure how much can be made of them, however, because on p. 412, she writes “Our hypothesis here that the Nag Hammadi codices were intentionally deposited in a grave or graves rather than buried for “posterity …”
    I don’t see that she argues anywhere for multiple graves as opposed to one. Nor, of course, does grave burial rule out a jar, though that would be unusual.

  5. Tony says:

    1. So how would describe the find? 12 codices and an additional texts from a 13th?
    2. I think it is noteworthy what Denzey Lewis and Blount can eliminate as unsupportable: the connection to the Pachomian monastery, much of the account of Ali, and the location of the find according to Ali (if we follow Doresse). The true location of the find in a cemetery seems likely, and is something that would have been denied by Ali if concerned about being considered a grave robber (would that have been a concern at the time?) Is it possible that Ali did not find the codices at all, and he just stepped forward when Robinson appeared, perhaps to take advantage of him for monetary gain?

    Yes, multiple graves is speculative, but again, the codices certainly originated in multiple libraries at some point in their transmission.

  6. Mike Grondin says:

    1. Yes. That’s the way Robinson described it in NHL, and he was the one who identified TP as having been placed into Codex VI. As late as his Judas book, he still maintained that there was no 13th codex. His misstatement in NHS, then, has to be seen, I think, as his yielding to the popular misconception inevitably caused in the first place by the decision to call TP a codex.

    2. I agree that location in the cemetery in question seems likely, but it can’t be ruled out that the jar was buried in that area, though not with a corpse in a burial hole. I also agree that it’s likely that the books originated in more than one library, but that doesn’t rule out their having been put together in one collection at some later time, perhaps due to inheritance? I do think that Ali and friends found the books, and probably all at once, since the evidence of codices being divided seems to bear that out, but overall I think there’s so many variables and possibilities that it’s difficult to decide with any certainty what scenario might be the most likely.

  7. Nicola Denzey Lewis says:

    Hi Tony (and Mike),
    A couple of explanatory things you can pass along to your students.
    1. It was actually while trying to get the details of the NHL discovery correct for the textbook that I discovered the discrepancies in Robinson’s account. That led to a great conversation with Mark Goodacre — in Toronto, actually — who had noticed the same thing. We subsequently wrote up our articles at the same time and exchanged manuscripts, although he got his published much earlier than I did (JBL took forever!). I was able to revise what I had originally written in the textbook — the standard “discovery” story — before it went to press, but still wanted to be a bit cautious there because I hadn’t finished all my research with Justine.
    2. To answer your students and you, I think I still would have stuck with the NHL as the subject for the textbook, even if I had argued from the outset for its lack of cohesion. I did so because no textbook existed specifically for Nag Hammadi. There are lots of other books that treat Gnosticism more broadly, but none that walk you through Nag Hammadi, which had been “bundled” since Robinson’s first English edition. Lots of people own that collection (also as you well know, available free online) but there are few accessible secondary resources specifically for NH. And that’s a big shame. I called the book “Introduction to ‘Gnosticism'” because my editor insisted on it, to help sell the book and identify it for people. Few people know what Nag Hammadi is, so “Gnosticism” put it on people’s radar. I dealt with the reasons for the quotation marks in the book itself. (The “voices” and “worlds” subtitle was a private joke to myself, as a beloved teacher of mine once said that you need to have those words in a title these days in order for it to attract attention).
    3. As for the finds and find stories, yes, I think it’s possible that Doresse was also inventing. At least he was there much closer to 1945. His report is vague. The only thing we know for sure is this: that the codices appeared on the Cairo antiquities market gradually, over a period of around two years. They didn’t all come in one chunk. I think both Mohamed Ali and Robinson thoroughly discredited themselves for a whole host of reasons. Thirty years had passed (thirty years! Think of it!), and you have a “witness” come forward who has been bribed — a classic case of “leading the witness” — and who changes his story at every turn. Furthermore, there was never any physical evidence for the jar — which is described differently in different accounts (Mark G. points this out well). So. I don’t really believe there was a jar. I don’t believe that MA was the one who discovered the codices. I think they were robbed out from some site around 1943, mostly likely a tomb site. If pressed, I would also say that their excellent state means that they must have been in some sort of container, and if they were in a tomb, they were well protected from the bodies (books and corpses are a bad mix). This means, for instance, that they couldn’t have been from a trash heap like other books and papyrus from Oxyrhynchus. In the end, I think we have to be cautious and agnostic: they may have been together or separate; they may have been in a jar or a stone box; they may have been in a tomb or in some other protected place; they may have been discovered all at once or fairly gradually. That’s all we can really tell from the accounts and the evidence. All the rest is “apocryphal” — haha!

  8. Thanks, Tony, for referring students to my article. And thanks for a great discussion. I think one of our difficulties is that we intuitively think that greater detail correlates to greater reliability / stronger memories. Thus many scholars simply bought Robinson’s story wholesale and simply restate it as a matter of course (including me too for some years, until I came across the 1987 documentary), imagining that it supersedes Doresse’s version. But in fact Doresse had a much better grasp of how to do good ethnographic research — he appears not to have asked leading questions or to have manipulated the audience and still less did he bribe them!

  9. Yes, it was serendipity that Nicola and I happened upon the same material at the same time, and had a great discussion in Toronto at the Erasure History conference. It reassured me that I was not going nuts. I first presented my findings, such as they were, a few months earlier at the SBL International in London, in July 2011. I showed the clip from The Gnostics there too. In the end, our pieces complement each other nicely, I think.

  10. It may be of interest to compare accounts of Qumran Cave One. Weston W. Fields, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, vol. 1 (e.g. pages 111-113 and endnotes) suggests that the Cave One mss *may* have come from two different caves.
    (Btw…awaiting the reply to Bauckham concerning Joseph and Aseneth.)

  11. David Bremang says:

    Sorry if I am off topic here, but I have a question Tony.

    In relation to the Hymn of the Pearl there are several accounts within the bible of men that go through the similar situation.What makes this Hymn not accounted for in the modern bible of today ? is it because of the literal text referring to Gnostic theology ? – Where does the line get drawn as to what is reputable to Orthodox Christians ?

  12. Jars with mss, at least, are known elsewhere. Did all the accounts agree on a jar (whatever the size)? Has anyone noted differences (from one NH codex to another) in deterioration that may suggest more than one deposit place? There have been some such investigations concerning Qumran mss. I.e., a text reversed on a piece of marl was said to be from 11Q (in the cliffs above Kh. Q.), but Hanan Eshel observed that 11Q is not a marl cave (lower than Kh. Q.), so the assignment is likely mistaken. Mss in jars or not; mss with bat guano nitrates (investigated by Ira Rabin et al.) or not; etc.

  13. Tony says:

    Stephen,
    Sorry to take so long to look at Bauckham’s response to the Lost Gospel. I have delayed because I expected to have little to say because I was involved only peripherally and I don’t support Wilson and Jacobovici’s arguments. But I can offer a few comments:
    1. At several places Bauckham mentions the two Mss of the text and questions the argument that the letter of Moses of Ingila was “censored.” Bauckham asked me to send him the manuscript images in my possession so that he could craft an informed response. Bauckham is correct that the manuscript page appears to be cut off right at the beginning of the margin. The cut is certainly deliberate but we don’t know why it was done; was it the conservator cutting free frayed papyrus? or was it someone who objected to the letter’s contents? If the latter, then something must have been in the margins, which is peculiar. Certainly the argument for censorship would be stronger if the page was cut somewhere across the middle. Bauckham mentions also that the copyist of the 12th century manuscript presumably had the letters intact when he saw the 6th-century Ms. Perhaps not. We don’t know how much of the letter is lost; we know only that the first chapter of Joseph and Aseneth went missing after the 12th century. So J&A was intact, but the letter may not have been–it all depends on how many pages we are dealing with and what their contents were. Also, it is possible that the letter was intact in the Ms but blacked out, leaving J&A intact but the letter censored but still present in the Ms. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but it is possible. All we know is that the letter was cut off precisely when the author was going to reveal the “inner meaning.”
    2. The digital imaging did not reveal much about the manuscript. It was an expensive endeavour that yielded very little results, as I suspected it would (and told Jacobovici and Wilson at the time). The Ms is not a palimpsest, nor has text been erased (scraped off of blacked out) except in relatively minor places (isolated words and these all seem to be to correct minor copyist errors).

    I hope this helps.

  14. Forgive my ignorance, but why does a grave burial mean that the codices do not come from a monastic context? I’m thinking of Hugo Lundhaug’s teams’ work on the NHL and also the fact that the G Peter was buried with a monk.

    This is a great discussion. The questions about provenance and documentation have a lot of resonances with more recent controversies. Really important stuff.

  15. Tony says:

    Carrie, you’re right that the grave could be that of a monk, but not necessarily so. The more significant difference, though, is that the new thinking on the discovery removes the connection with the Pachomian monastery that was intertwined with the original story–more specifically, that the texts came from a monastery and were hidden away because of ecclesiastical efforts to destroy apocryphal texts.

  16. Antonio Garcia Hurtado says:

    The Coptic alphabet should be transliterated into Aramaic to translate the Nag Hammadi texts. The Coptic language is an Aramaic variety.
    Grondin knows about this aramaic flavor, but he rejects this option, the only possible to understand coptic.

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